1741 - 1824
Housed 35 Light Infantrymen in the Winter of 1776-1777 and George Washington and his staff “family” during the harsh winter of 1779-1780
January 10, 1777 was one of the worst days of my life. The war for independence had been going on for well over a year and it looked like the war would continue on for a long time. My husband, Jacob, had been trying to complete our house in Morristown while also running the gunpowder mill he owned, that was supplying gunpowder to the Patriot forces, and serving as colonel of the local militia regiment. Several days before, men from the shrinking and dilapidated Continental Army had arrived in Morristown after winning the battles of Trenton and Princeton. My husband had not been well and he died of pneumonia on January 10. I was left alone to deal with his affairs, take care of our children, and deal with the 35 soldiers assigned to spend the winter in our house. I got through that winter, but then two years later General Washington himself asked if he could use my house for his headquarters during another winter encampment. Of course I agreed, but the General’s large “family” of officers meant my family space was reduced to just two rooms. Dealing with all this military activity was very difficult on my entire family, especially since that second winter brought with it the worst weather any of us could remember. However, many important people came through my house, one foreign visitor even died while with us, so life was also very interesting, but still very hard.
Learn More About Theodosia Ford…
I was born in 1741 and into the family of Rev. Timothy Johnes who became rector of the Morristown Presbyterian Church in 1742. I lost my mother when I was just seven years old and my father remarried about a year later. As a young woman I met and married the well to do Morristown landowner and merchant, Jacob Ford, Jr., whose father had established an important iron works in Morris County. The Fords were leading citizens of Morristown due to their business success and civic leadership.
After our marriage in 1762, Jacob built a home for us at nearby Mount Hope. Ten years later Jacob’s father asked him to return to Morristown to handle the family concerns. In 1772, Jacob began to build a large house for us on 200 acres of land his father gave him. About 1774 we moved into our house, even though it was not quite finished yet. We were proud of our house because it was by far the largest in Morristown, but we felt it was not ostentatious. Our “mansion” was a symbol of the Ford family’s status as community leaders. When the Revolution broke out Jacob sided with those opposing England and obtained permission from the New Jersey Provincial Congress to build a powder mill near Morristown to manufacture gunpowder for the Continental army. Jacob was also commissioned as colonel of the eastern battalion of the Morris County militia. My brother, Timothy, was a doctor and became surgeon for the battalion.
After the Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777 the remnants of the Continental Army came to Morristown to spend the winter, and just a few days later, on January 10, Jacob died of pneumonia and his father died just a week later on January 19. Their devastating deaths left me a widow at the age of 36 with responsibility for five children, a mansion, several hundred acres of land, a farm, and the gunpowder mill. Our children jointly inherited most of Jacob’s estate and I acted as their guardian while they were young. Our family tragedies were not over yet, though, and I lost my two-year-old daughter Phebe in June to dysentery. As if these problems were not enough, during the army’s winter encampment my home was occupied by 35 men from Thomas Rodney’s Light Infantry regiment of the Continental army.
Two years later, on December 1, 1779 General Washington and his troops arrived back, in the midst of a severe snowstorm, for another winter in Morristown and nearby Jockey Hollow. This turned out to be one of the worst winters of the century with huge amounts of snow and frigid temperatures. General Washington asked to use our house for his headquarters and I agreed. We moved our belongings into two rooms, leaving the rest of the house to General Washington and his staff, whom he called his “family”. Shortly after Christmas, Mrs. Washington arrived and took on the role of official hostess in my house.
Our life was very interesting, but not easy, as we tried to live a normal life amid the beehive of military activity. A number of important guests came and went from our house. One guest, Spanish Ambassador Don Juan de Miralles, fell ill and died while staying with us. General Washington tried to be considerate of our needs, but he admitted to General Nathanael Green on January 22 that, “Eighteen of my family and all of Mrs. Ford’s are crowded together in her kitchen, and scarce one of them able to speak for the colds they have caught.” The General was also concerned because the separate kitchen he had ordered built near our house was nowhere near completion yet and there was nowhere for a servant to lodge “with the smallest degree of comfort.” The soldiers assigned to guard General Washington were camped across the road and were frequently in and about our house. My teenage son, Timothy, was popular with them and joined them as a volunteer. He wore his father’s sword, and was wounded at the Battle of Springfield in June 1780 at the end of the encampment.
I remained in the house during the war and somehow held my family and our businesses together. I never remarried and lived in our Morristown house until my death at the age of 83 in 1824. Today, my home, the Ford Mansion, is part of Morristown National Historical Park. My story is representative of the many women who lost husbands during the war and either gave up their farms or struggled to maintain their family, land, and business. I was fortunate that Jacob left substantial finances to draw on and that General Washington reimbursed me for the expenses of putting up his “family” when he used our home for his headquarters for many months.
Ford, Timothy. “Diary of Timothy Ford, with Notes by Joseph Barnwell,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogy Magazine13 (1912); 132-147.
Gray, Patricia Conroy. “Theodosia Johnes Ford, 1741-1824” in Joan N. Burstyn, ed., Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women. The Women’s Project of New Jersey, Inc., Syracuse University Press, 1997, 18-19.
Pfister, Jude M. The Jacob Ford Jr. Mansion: The Storied History of a New Jersey Home. Charleston: The History Press, 2009.
Washington, George to Nathanael Greene, Morristown, January 22, 1780. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor. Online athttp://memory.loc.gov/ammem/gwhtml/gwhome.html